Why Visual Design Skills are a Must-Have for Good UX
Why aesthetic craft is a vital skill for UX designers looking to produce the best possible work.
It’s not all that hard to come across these ideas in the UX industry:
UX and visual/UI design are mutually exclusive skill-sets best handled by entirely different types of practitioners.
A good UX designer doesn’t need to be skilled in visual design.
Companies looking for “hybrid” UI/UX designers have unrealistic expectations and should give up on finding such “unicorns”.
But this sort of thinking seems to be on the decline. Seeing as it isn’t entirely gone, I think it’s still worth laying out a few counterpoints.
So where did these beliefs come from?
It’s no secret that user experience design has historically struggled to avoid being seen as focused only on “look and feel”. This makes sense, and unfortunately there are plenty of practicing interface designers out there who optimize only for their own visual preferences.
To avoid this, the industry has explained emphatically (and reasonably successfully) that UX is more than just visuals — it extends into information architecture, usability, psychology and all sorts of other great stuff as well.
But in the zeal to make this clarification, UX practitioners may have sometimes overly distanced themselves from the craft of visual design.
Without getting too deep into definitions (these terms are slippery!) I’d argue that UX and visual/UI design are nowhere near mutually exclusive. In many cases they’re not even different at all.
It’s more accurate — or at least more useful — to think of visual design as a subset of the broader field of UX design. But just because something is a subset, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important.
In Nielsen Norman Group’s latest industry research on UX design roles they found:
• 79% of designers reported having visual design skill
• 90% of designers report doing visual design at least sometimes.
• The research found very few people identifying as specialized visual/UI designers. It’s not even comparable to the amount of explicitly “hybrid” roles.
And yet it seems that many in the UX world still neglect to develop their visual craft.
The value of visuals
Visual design has an enormous effect on how a user experiences an interface.
One clear way this manifests is that users prefer better looking interfaces to the point where they’re willing to forgive usability imperfections.
But just “making things look good” is only the simplest view of the value of visual design. As graphic designers have been saying forever, visual design is about communicating.
The styling of an element signifies its function. Users will have expectations about how something works based on how it looks.
In which of these two controls is it easier to tell if the left or right side is the active selection?
Aesthetic can affect the psychology of a user’s decision making. For example Baymard’s research shows that visually reinforcing a credit card field can actually make users perceive that field as more secure.
Visual hierarchy influences the flow of a user’s attention, and can make a difference in the effort required to mentally process a piece of content.
It’s the visual design more than the layout that makes the card on the right easier to understand at a glance.
All of this means that visual design is inextricably tied into usability, user expectations, and user psychology.
Knowing these visual design best practices from an intellectual or academic perspective is not enough. To actually execute on a theoretical knowledge of visual design you need an aptitude that can only be developed through practice. This is why it makes sense to emphasize skill instead of just knowledge.
UX/UI “hybrids” are more valuable
When our craft was first budding and barely understood, it was easier for those who wanted to get into UX to position themselves around the architectural and process-based aspects of design that were ever so conveniently much harder for others to evaluate. This meant many who entered the industry early could do so while demonstrating almost no visual design work at all. This isn’t to say hybrid roles didn’t exist before, but there used to be a more “UX only” jobs than there are now.
Nowadays, even a casual look at a jobs board makes it pretty clear that Product Designer and UX Designer roles tend to specify visual design as a prerequisite by default. Some of the trends I touched on in my post about the diminishing role of wireframes (like shifts towards Agile development, Lean UX, and more effective design tools) are also making visual design both more important and more accessible.
UX Tools 2019 survey results show quite a lot of UX and Product Designers and very few dedicated UI Designers
We’re at the point where there’s a solidly established industry of boot-camps, online courses, and even full undergraduate and graduate degrees that train prospective UX talent. This, along with the general desirability of UX jobs means an increase in competition for roles, which in turn drives an arms race in the skills acquired to fill those roles.
In this more competitive environment a “UX-only” skill-set is not as compelling when compared to a candidate who shows a mastery of UX that includes visual design. The basics of which — by the way — are actually easier to learn in the era of flat design. In our skeuomorphic past, interfaces used to require detailed visual rendering that took up significantly more time and effort. You may not have to be the absolute greatest visual designer in the world, but at least a baseline competency is a pretty reasonable ask.
When you think of the amount of knowledge and skills someone can obtain over 1-4 years of study even visual design may not offer enough differentiation without the addition of complimentary skills like animation, product strategy, UX writing, or illustration.
(If you’re a job seeker who just felt a pang of anxiety I wouldn’t be too worried. In many ways the bar was very low before and in some places it certainly still is!)
So let’s say you’re sold on this argument and know your own visual skills are not what they could be. Where do you go from here?
If you really don’t want to be involved in visuals there are some other design-adjacent possibilities such as:
- UX Researcher
- Design Operations (Ops)
- UX Writer
- Service Designer
- Product Manager
Each of these roles will keep you close to UX without requiring too much hands-on design practice.
If you still insist on a non-visual UX design role, those aren’t impossible to find. Voice interfaces may have little need for visuals, though this is definitely a narrow niche at the moment.
Some positions out there still maintain a separation between a UX Designer and a Visual Designer for visual interface work. I personally wouldn’t recommend targeting them for the best long term career prospects as the industry as a whole seems to be moving away from that approach. And even in those situations UX Designers may still be expected to have decent visual competency for anything related to the interface elements themselves. Visual Designers will focus more on detailed illustrations, photography, or supporting graphics.
If you want to excel in UX design you may need to boost your visual skills. The good news is that pretty much anyone can get better through practice. My main recommendations would be to do the following:
- Find exceptional interfaces (or even Behance or Dribbble mockups) and try to replicate them as precisely as possible in your design tool of choice. Every time you do this you will acquire new tools and tactics you can apply to your own work in the future.
- Churn out a large body of work focusing primarily on visuals. Get critique on that work from wherever you can. The Daily UI Design Challenge can be a helpful for ensuring you tackle a variety of interface types.
- Reading about things is no substitute for spending a lot of time in deliberate practice but it can be helpful to seek out resources that contain practical tips and examples of solid visual design. Just don’t let that be the only thing you do!